Virtual Politics

Retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark seemed a very appealing fellow to retiree Eric Carbone. "I came out of retirement to work for this guy," he says, looking up from his computer in an office just around the corner from the White House. Carbone, a member of DraftWesleyClark.com, spent the past two months encouraging Clark to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But Carbone's not a gray-haired, wizened old fellow deferring a move to Palm Beach because of his passion for the good general and worries about national-security issues.

Carbone is only 33 years old. He's been retired for just one year. He's a little-heralded member of a new breed whose fates used to be detailed in slick, now-defunct dot-com magazines like the Industry Standard. He'd made a fortune in the tech sector after selling his Internet company, Real Fans Sports Network, to AOL Time Warner. Today, without a whole publishing sector devoted to their every move, former tech-world people like Carbone are less visible than they used to be. And yet they are also more powerful than ever.

As this magazine went to press, Clark had not announced whether he would enter the 2004 presidential campaign. But veterans of the Internet boom and bust had nonetheless flocked to DraftWesleyClark.com, just as they have to the real campaigns of other Democratic presidential wannabes. DraftWesleyClark.com's co-founder, 36-year-old John Hlinko, was laid off from Silicon Valley startup Third Voice in 2001. His partner at DraftWesleyClark, attorney Josh Margulies, had run a failed firm called LawyerAccess.com. By early September, Carbone, Margulies and Hlinko -- along with several others -- were managing a massive online fund-raising and signature-gathering effort for a potential Clark run.

Years in the online trenches may not have landed all of these Internet veterans the money Carbone got. But they have given them the skills and the know-how to manage the press, mobilize the troops and raise some serious cash -- or at least pledges of it. (DraftWesleyClark.com persuaded people to pledge more than $1 million in just a month to the undeclared candidate.) More importantly, their years of riding high in the bubble economy also gave them, when it burst, a brush with a highly unpleasant condition that's afflicted people of their educational level more during the recent recession than in past economic downturns: unemployment. Since the stock market peaked in March 2000 and collapsed after the attacks of September 11, a whole generation of highly skilled, well-educated, entrepreneurial men and women has had to face questions about whether to go back to school, go on the dole, mail in those COBRA health-insurance forms -- or simply go without. In short, after three years of a downturn that began in the communications and technology sectors, it should be no surprise that people who spent time there might look at the political world in a whole new way.

The Internet boom created a new base of wealth free from long-standing allegiances or deep involvement in traditional political circles and a new generation of individuals steeped in the boom years' free-agent, entrepreneurial, startup mentality. Many of these individuals gained extremely valuable technical skills and the raw power to make what they envision so. As a result, the political sphere is being transformed. Whether or not this transformation will be enough to defeat George W. Bush in 2004 remains to be seen. But it has already rocked the political world, thrusting former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean into the position of front-runner in the Democratic nominating contest.

The most prominent of the new political-technical hybrid organizations are the two based nearest the epicenter of the online world, California's Silicon Valley and New York's Silicon Alley. Both MoveOn.org and Meetup.com were founded by individuals who'd made their fortunes in the technology sector and then looked around for something new to do. Wes Boyd and wife Joan Blades, two of the founders of MoveOn.org, earned their fortunes with Berkeley Systems, the manufacturer of the popular Flying Toaster screensaver. Meetup.com was co-founded by Scott Heiferman, a 31-year-old marketing genius who made his millions pioneering all those flashing banner ads that decorate today's Web pages. In 1999 he sold his company, i-traffic, and left after it was acquired by Madison Avenue marketing giant Omnicom. And then he started reading.

One of the books he picked up was Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which grew out of a series of articles published in the Journal of Democracy and this very magazine between 1993-94. In 1996, Putnam revisited his thesis that America had suffered a profound breakdown in civic engagement and associational activity. [See "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," tap, Winter 1996.] After carefully reviewing factors, which run the gamut from increased work hours to the entrance of women into the formal economy, Putnam concluded that "the culprit is television."

"Controlling for education, income, age, race, place of residence, work status, and gender, TV viewing is strongly and negatively related to social trust and group membership, whereas the same correlations with newspaper reading are positive," wrote Putnam. Americans had become increasingly mobile, increasingly educated, and increasingly disconnected from and distrustful of one another. Television sucked up their time, divided them from one another in isolated homes and fed them distorted visions of themselves. Meanwhile, the power of money in politics grew as politicians and lobbyists and business interest groups took advantage of the loopholes in the campaign-finance laws.

Enter the Internet, which has traits common to both television and newspapers. Though spending time on the Internet isolates people in physical space, the fundamental quality of the Internet is that it is ultimately interactive. The most common Internet applications -- e-mail and instant-messaging software -- drive people into epistolary relations. And so the Internet begins by replacing the primacy of the image with the primacy of the written word.

"Technologies are social organizations primarily, they're not hardware," notes Stirling Newberry, a 36-year-old theorist with ClarkSphere.com, another of the online grass-roots efforts urging Clark to campaign. It all goes back, he says, to what Marshall McLuhan noted. "TV is not just a technology, it's a social structure, too. People organize themselves around it to use it," says Newberry. But now, "in the modern age, the technology that is driving how people communicate at the front end of the campaign is the Internet. It's not small journals like The Partisan Review."

Heiferman's bet was that people, even in this wired world, still want most what they have always wanted: one another's society. "People like to 'Meetup,'" Heiferman told the audience of the New Democrat Network's annual meeting in Washington this past June. "The evidence? You, here."

It was an odd moment: curly-headed, pug-nosed Heiferman, in his horn-rimmed hipster glasses, telling the more conservative, mainstream Democratic group about a future that seemed, from his presentation, likely to be much less orderly than the political arena they knew. The audience applauded politely, but didn't seem to fully get it.

Others have. If Heiferman's second act was based on the understanding that people crave social interaction within their communities, the company's recent fame has been based on the unexpected success the group has had in helping local communities reconnect with the national agenda. One-year-old Meetup.com began by providing communities of interest -- such as knitters and Chihuahua owners -- a means to easily organize in-person gatherings. It has become a powerful grass-roots organizing tool for the Dean campaign. More than 100,000 people have signed on with Meetup to support and learn about Dean. The firm has now been hired by dozens of other politicians and groups, including the pro-Gray Davis outfit Californians Against the Recall, DraftWesleyClark.com, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi understands the power of the organic, almost anarchic medium of the Internet, perhaps better than any person in politics today. Though he is hardly an Internet millionaire, his own roots in the online world run deep. For the past two and a half years, he has worn the hat of chief technology officer at Catapult Strategies, a marketing and public-relations firm based in San Jose, Calif., and Alexandria, Va., that works with pre-IPO tech companies, in addition to his role as a partner with Trippi, McMahon and Squier, the political public-affairs and strategy firm. He's been active in several development-stage companies, such as Wave Systems, whose Wavexpress streaming video subsidiary now creates and runs HowardDean.tv, an all-Dean, all-the-time online news channel. And Trippi worked for Progeny Linux Systems, the upstart computer-operating system whose kernel -- or central program -- is written by a community of coders in a meritocratic "open source" system where anyone can propose new code and, if it works, see it included in new versions of the program. "I always wondered how you could take that same collaboration that occurs in Linux and open source and apply it [in politics]," Trippi told Stanford law professor and blogger Lawrence Lessig in an online interview. "What would happen if there were a way to do that and engage everybody in a presidential campaign?"

The answer Trippi came up with is the same one that led him to Meetup.com: blogs. After the downturn hit the technology sector, the economic retrenchment spread rapidly to those sectors that had become most dependent on the dot-coms: advertising and publishing. Not only did much of the tech media collapse, site after online site shut down. Advertising went into its worst decline since the Great Depression, forcing old media to take a serious financial hit. Thousands of reporters lost their jobs, and those who kept them suddenly experienced a new reality of pay cuts and insecurity. Though Web logs, or blogs, had been around for some time, the new economic reality produced a sudden deficit in online reading material and a sudden glut of writers. Meanwhile, the contested election of 2000 and the September 11 attacks produced a lot of stuff to write about.

Many blogs began as side projects by journalists without day jobs, such as andrewsullivan.com, talkingpointsmemo.com and kausfiles. Others are informal outgrowths of other publications, such as the National Review's The Corner or this magazine's Tapped. Still others are maintained by individuals with area-specific expertise or university tenure, such as Glenn Reynolds' InstaPundit.com. More recently, dozens of local and national political sites have sprung up. As recently as a year ago the "blogosphere" was dominated by conservative political voices. Then came the Democrats' 2002 congressional election defeat and the war in Iraq. Since then, the liberal blogosphere has exploded and become interconnected to an astonishing extent, so that today there is, in the online world, a daily dialogue on all matters of state to be found.

Trippi was reading Jerome Armstrong's MyDD.com -- founded in 2001, it's now one of the older liberal blogs -- when he first learned that there was a company called Meetup being used by Dean supporters to self-organize. He'd been reading the blogs for two years, and soon he added a Meetup link to the Dean blog. Mathew Gross, a former MyDD contributor from Utah who drove to Vermont and deposited himself at Dean's headquarters unannounced, looking for work, created the Dean blog. It now operates as a kind of real-time, rolling focus group that provides feedback and makes the Dean campaign the most open of any of the major ones.

But the Internet doesn't simply attract generals; it's about ground troops, too. Young people who've grown up with the Internet have taken to the blogs and the Dean campaign like ducks to water, founding their own network of campus associations, Generation Dean, and drawing hordes of young volunteers to Burlington. The Dean campaign, meanwhile, has done its level best to hire talent (frequently volunteers) from many of the youthful blogs, such as Ezra Klein and Joe Rospars of NotGeniuses.com.

By building and participating in a responsive online community, the Dean campaign enrolled people in its quest and encouraged donations, then wowed the political world by raking in a field-leading $7.6 million in the second quarter of the year. Now all the other candidates are playing catch-up: Sens. Kerry, John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) have all launched blogs. It's the latest rage across the political spectrum; even the Bush-Cheney re-election effort and beleaguered California Gov. Gray Davis' wife have launched blogs.

In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the new technologically enabled communities have put Dean out front in the dash for cash, not to mention in the lead or tied for it in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, California, Maryland -- and nationwide. But there is a risk inherent in having a campaign manager who is also, in some ways, a CTO. The Dean campaign in recent weeks has come close to being overwhelmed by the demands of its own process, as the Internet, fund-raising and memberships drives, visibility days, Meetup numbers and massive rallies shift attention from what a Dean presidency would actually do for America to the technical mechanisms of winning. Even though Dean's most ardent supporters talk about his message, the impression that the campaign neglects developing clear, detailed positions on the issues is a common complaint on the Dean blog, and one at times reinforced by Dean himself.

"Most of my support is not on the issues, which is why I've never worried about where I am on the political spectrum," Dean told reporters on his late August Sleepless Summer Tour. "It isn't so much what I say, it's how I say it."

Whether or not a powerful Internet presence can translate into votes in key states is also an open question. It may, however, be the wrong one. Meetup.com does not seem to be organizing Dean voters; it is assisting the campaign with discovering, filtering and empowering Dean field operatives and volunteers. The Internet is proving to be an ideal medium not only for fund raising but for organizing the organizers and influencing opinion-makers. The more than 10,000 Dean Meetuppers based in California no doubt had some impact -- through their relentless fliering, tabling, chatting, blogging, stickering and advocating -- on catapulting Dean into the polling lead in California, even though he has no paid presence in the state. In fact, although he knew he could draw massive crowds there, Dean skipped California on his tour because he's so confident in the strength of the existing all-volunteer apparatus there.

"Dean has been the front-runner for months because he was the only one running forward," says Newberry. "The influentials are not watching TV; they are not even watching cable. They are on the Internet. If you're not on the Internet you are not an active person. You are a passive person and you will be swept up later."

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